Searing Music from Cold Climes in Overture Hall Sizzles

Searing Music from Cold Climes in Overture Hall Sizzles

It might have seemed fortuitous timing that John DeMain had programmed an all-Scandinavian program a few days in advance of an early visit from last year’s winter friend—the polar vortex. But the truth is that this was likely to be a concert so white-hot in its intensity that global warming advocates might find a new man-made cause.

Pardon the gender slip, since one of the reasons one could be confident in the outcome was that Friday night’s concert in Overture Hall marked the return of violinist Sarah Chang. No stranger to the Madison Symphony Orchestra (she was here in 2004 and 2008), the erstwhile prodigy now longtime dominating artist is welcome anytime. Put the Sibelius Violin Concerto in front of her, and it’s time to consider installing seat belts at Overture Center.

It had been something in the neighborhood of twenty years since I last saw her in live performance, back in my SoCal days. She had already made the leap from wunderkind to an artist of substance, and I certainly recalled her warm tone and masterful technique. What I had forgotten however, was how much fun she is to watch. At times when the orchestra takes over, Chang sways and swings for a moment or two in time to the music, other times seems impatient to get back in the game. Several times, most notably at the very end, her violin bow resembles something more akin to an epee, as she brandishes it with a flourish.

But of course all the showmanship in the world will result in the musical equivalent of empty calories if not filled out with interpretive insight, and there was no shortage of that. Better still, DeMain was at his partnering best, giving Chang just what she needed even while letting her take the reins as it were. It was clear throughout the three extended curtain calls that Chang and the MSO had mutually admired the other’s efforts. While one harbored a twinge of disappointment at the lack of an encore, no one could argue that we hadn’t received our time and money’s worth.

Chang’s ferocious conquering of the Finnish masterpiece had been preceded by a slighter work new to the MSO, the Lyric Suite of Grieg. In the first two movements we heard the first hints in some time that not every string player was sure of the tempo or full in the upper range. All was quickly put right in the ensuing little gems that followed, jaunty and faux-fierce in the “March of the Dwarfs.”

The other musical firestorm erupted after intermission, and again it was in a work that the MSO tackled for the first time. Notable for its composition during the first years of World War I (of which 2014 is the centennial), Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 (“Inextinguishable”) is a masterpiece that makes technical and interpretive demands equally. DeMain and his troops rushed headlong into the opening bars with the same intensity Chang had brought to bear earlier, and unleashed a maelstrom of musical lightning bolts in the outer movements. About thirty-six minutes in length, the four sections are played without pause, and DeMain navigated the pacing and the emotional highs and lows with a sure hand. It was the kind of reading that makes you forget, at least for the time it takes to walk back to the car, that we’ve entered the season of wind chills. As usual, DeMain, Chang and company will repeat the program Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.